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Nurturer of Statehood and Empire

Russia’s History has Been Forged for Centuries in the Volga River Valley. Today, a Journey Along its Banks Reveals the Divergent Views Shaping the 'new Russia.'

Burke, Justin. "Nurturer of Statehood and Empire." Christian Science Monitor, 31 August 1993, 9 & 12.


Across the vast Eurasian territory, there are rivers greater in length and power, but none that has been more influential in shaping Russia’s statehood than the Volga.

It stretches more than 2,100 miles, originating in the Valdai Hills north of Moscow, then curving around the Russian capital before flowing south to the Caspian Sea. Though immense by any standard, the Volga is only the fifth longest river in Russia, after the Ob (2,700 miles long), Amur, Yenisei, and Lena – all located in Russia’s Asian regions.

Historically, however, the Volga has been the primary nurturer of Moscow’s rise from an obscure principality in the 12th century to an empire in the 19th century and a global superpower in the 20th.

The Volga and its tributaries were the most important trade links to both East and West for the nascent principality of Muscovy. And later, when the state started expanding in the 15th century, the river played a crucial role in territorial conquest and the establishment of the Russian Empire.

Over subsequent centuries, many of the events and personalities that have come to define modern Russia can trace their origins to the Volga. For example, the Time of Troubles – the 17th century era of weak leadership and social upheaval – both began and ended in cities along the river. The Volga was also where the Red Army reversed the tide in its fight against the Nazis during World War II. And it was along the river that Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin grew up, studied, and embarked on a revolutionary career that would culminate in the Communist takeover of Russia in November of 1917.

Now, as the 21st century approaches, modernization has caused the Volga to lose stature as a trade route. At the same time, its natural course and physical beauty have been drastically altered by a series of hydroelectric dams, construction on which began during Soviet dictator Josephs Stalin’s 1930s industrialization drive. Those dams, in turn, generated the power for the massive industrial enterprises that appeared along the Volga during the Communist era.

The changes have meant the disappearance of a powerful symbol of Russian folklore – the Volga boatmen hauling barges on the river to the rhythm of their haunting chorus. In their place, there’s now a fleet of freighters and tankers plying a river that in some areas more resembles a sea – as the dams have created reservoirs 20 miles wide. Industrialization, meanwhile, has produced pollution that threatens the river’s future.

Yet, despite the Volga’s transformation, many of those living and working along it still refer to it as "Mother Volga," a sign the river’s symbolic value remains embedded in the national consciousness.

And given that more than a third of Russia’s 150 million citizens resides in its basin, the Volga seems destined to again play an influential role in both Russia’s revival and in producing the next generation of leader. With the nation drifting amid political and economic turmoil, several regions already have emerged as leader in the effort to give shape to a post-Communist Russia.

The ultimate goal of these regions is the same, namely ending the chaos produced by the Soviet Union’s collapse and replacing it with stability and prosperity. But vastly different methods are being employed in pursuit of the objective.

"Developments should not be viewed in progressive and conservative terms. It’s a matter of the governable," says Olga Senatova, an expert on the Volga region at the Russian State Committee for National Policy.

"Moscow isn’t capable now of governing such a huge country," Ms. Senatova adds. "Under the given circumstances, local authorities are doing whatever is possible."

For example, in Nizhny Novgorod, located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers about 300 miles east of Moscow, a youthful leadership team is emphasizing fast-paced, capitalist-style economic reforms. The philosophy there is that the entrepreneur and individual initiative are the keys to economic revival. Thus, officials aim to set an example for all Russia by breaking the bureaucracy’s control over the economic decision making process and unleashing the nation’s economic potential.

But 200 miles down the river, in Tatarstan – one of Russia’s autonomous republics, or nominal ethnic lands – officials seem intent on pursuing a separate solution. Tatarstan is widely recognized as the leader among the autonomous republics in the effort to break free from Moscow’s rule. Officials in the capital, Kazan, warn that the sovereignty aspirations of Tatarstan and other autonomous republics threaten to spark the disintegration of the Russian Federation. Tatar leaders counter that, given Moscow’s present weakness, their sovereignty bid is the best way to preserve regional stability, as well as create conditions for the rise of a new, confederative state.

In addition, several large industrial centers along the river- including Samara, Saratov, and Astrakhan – are to one degree or another advocating more cautious reform strategies.

Some officials in these cities insist that Russia’s prevailing conditions, which have developed over centuries, mean that anything but a gradual transition from a planned economy to a market system cannot be contemplated.

"Nothing can be accomplished quickly because inertia is an important part of the mentality of our people," says Vladimir Moskovsky, a top official in the Samara city administration.

"Evolution, nor revolution, is the key," Mr. Moskovsky adds. "Revolutions are counterproductive because they destroy the nation’s best minds and set society back."

But other Volga-area political leaders such as Alexander Zhilkin, first deputy governor of the Astrakhan Region, say the cautious approach may prevent Russia from breaking out of a historical vicious cycle of heavy-handed rule accompanied by economic backwardness.

"With the government throttled by infighting and tentative reforms failing to provide the tangible benefits for a large majority of the population, Russia is ripening for a return to authoritarianism," Mr. Zhilkin says.

"The situation now reminds me of that following the February Revolution," he says, referring to the 1917 uprising that brought down the absolute monarchy.

"Back then the provisional government was paralyzed, and the political vacuum was immediately filled by a Third Force [the Bolsheviks]," Zhilkin says in an interview.

Although the go-slow approach currently appears to enjoy the broadest support, officials are reluctant to predict what reform path could ultimately be the most influential in transforming Russia. At the same time, however, many stress without hesitation that it is necessary to move forward.

"To rule according to old principles isn’t only no longer possible, but also dangerous," says Yuri Byelikh, the governor of the Saratov Region.

Tour boat: Passing through locks on Moscow River, on the way to the Volga.
Enterprising port: In the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod, north of Moscow, officials have pushed aside central planning and embraced a program of rapid market reforms.

Reprinted with permission of the Christian Science Monitor.

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